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Ordnance Survey Letters by John O'Donovan and Eugene Curry, 1839


In 1824 a detailed valuation of land and buildings was being planned as a preliminary to the reform of Ireland’s local taxation system. Townlands, though generally recognised as the smallest administrative divisions of the country and used extensively in land transactions and, in a general sense, to identify and locate places, had never been systematically mapped. In order that the townland could become the authentic territorial base of the proposed valuation its boundaries, area and contents had to be demarcated, surveyed and described. In 1824/5, therefore, a new government department was established to demarcate townland boundaries and the Ordnance Survey (O.S.) was given the task of measuring them. Military engineers began in 1825 to map their way across Ireland from north to south on the scale of six inches to one statute mile. The survey had three departments - trigonometrical, hill and topographical - and it is the latter, which was allocated the responsibility for correcting and authenticating the placenames collected, that concerns us. At one stage the O.S. had more than 2,100 employees: the first six-inch sheet was published in 1833 and by 1846 the full set was available for the whole country. It was an extraordinary achievement but no less significant was the role of the topographical department who verified and standardised the townland names - some 60,000 independent republics.

The O.S. Letters, which are the subject of this publication, are the correspondence and detailed fieldnotes of the surveyors transmitted to Dublin headquarters. Initially the O.S. had hoped to accompany the maps with parish memoirs recording geology, botany, local history, economic and statistical data. Unfortunately this ambitious project was abandoned in 1840 with three of the four provinces almost untouched and only one memoir, that for the parish of Templemore, County Derry, published. Most of the memoir collections refer to the historic province of Ulster and the manuscript material is now being published by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast. Its strengths - detailed social and economic commentaries of pre-Famine Ireland - reveal one of the weaknesses of the Letters. The O.S. Letters, published by Clasp in this excellent series, are, with the O.S. Name Books, the best known of the ancillary collections built up by the Survey during its extensive mapping programme. Their popularity is in many respects due to the indefatigable Father Michael O’Flanagan who, in the 1920s and 1930s, produced a number of typescript copy sets from the originals. But a reference in Marcus Bourke’s, The O’Rahilly (Tralee, 1967), a biography of Michael Joseph Rahilly - better known as The O’Rahilly, a leading member of Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League who was killed leading a charge from the General Post Office in April 1916 - provides a clue to the origin of these copies. O’Rahilly, according to Bourke, formed the Irish Topographical Society for the specific purpose of copying O’Donovan’s Name-Books and Letters in 1911 and he enlisted the assistance of a group, including Arthur Griffith, who spent two years at the task. It was this material which O’Flanagan worked on and extended which is now published for County Clare.

In the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries (1864-6), Rev John O’Hanlon provided a comprehensive listing of the topographical collections made by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s and the 1840s. His list, along with a later summary published by R. Dudley Edwards in Analecta Hibernica (1966), is most important not least for indicating the existence of a range of source materials other than the Letter and Name Books. O’Hanlon classified the Clare material according to twelve categories. The most relevant for the purpose of this discussion are: (1) Three volumes of Inquisitions primarily from the early seventeenth century which were copied and examined to provide authority for placenames. (2) Six volumes of extracts from a variety of published and primary manuscript sources in Irish, English and Latin. These contain excerpts from sources such as the various annals, Smith’s notes for his proposed but unpublished history of the county, The Book of Lismore, translations of Brehon Law deeds, assignments and mortgages and is not only a major repository but a fascinating insight to the methodology of regional study in pre-Famine Ireland. (3) The Antiquarian Letters are in three volumes, although the third volume had few letters consisting primarily of John O’Donovan’s account of the ancient territories of Thomond and their relationship to the modern parishes and baronies. It is these volumes which are reproduced here. It was originally intended that O’Donovan would produce a series of maps showing the old territorial divisions associated with the native families superimposed on the O.S. index maps to the six-inch sheets for the country but this project was abandoned as it was feared that the maps could cast doubt on titles to land derived from the seventeenth century confiscations; fortunately, O’Donovan had completed his maps for counties Clare, Mayo and Galway.

Much of the remaining material in O’Hanlon’s list is concerned with orthography and indexes but two collections are of special value. (4) (number ix in O’Hanlon) consists of early nineteenth century administrative records relating mainly to road contracts and presentment sessions for the period 1833 to 1838. This collection also has a very valuable list of freeholders for every Clare barony with details on the location, origin and value of each freehold. (5) The final collection of interest contains the 18 artistic sketches relating to Clare. These sketches represent a veritable nineteenth century iconography of the county and their subjects which include the Abbey of Corcomroe, Stone Crosses at Disart, the Kilfenora Stone Cross, Scattery Island Round Tower and Quin Abbey, remain synonymous with Clare’s heritage. All of this material is now in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.

The Letters published here are of great interest not least for the fact that Eugene Curry wrote 19 of them and his colleague, south Kilkennyman, John O’Donovan, was responsible for 40. Curry, a native of Kilbaha, was on home ground and his correspondence with O.S. headquarters in Dublin is full of references to the sources of his information, whether his own lived experience or the oral folklore passed down the generations. Writing about the origin of the name Loop Head (recte Leap Head) Curry recounted a local oral tradition ‘which was very vividly remembered in the county up to the time of I leaving it in the year 1820.’ He also dismissed an assertion from Theophilus O’Flanagan concerning the derivation of the name stating, ‘I never heard this version of the tradition, though I have been acquainted with the place from my earliest boyhood’ and ‘my father who died in the year 1825 at the age of eighty-one years and who was a good English and Irish scholar and knew more of the traditional history of the Barony of Moyarta in particular, than any person I knew.’ His father brought him back to 1744 and, referring to the burying ground called Killcasheen in the townland of Kilcasheen in the parish of Moyarta, he observed ‘this was a deserted burying place in the year 1793 but in the ensuing year when famine and pestilence raged through the country and dead human bodies were to be met with by the roads and ditches, my grandfather, Melachlin Garb O’Comhraidhe, who tenanted at will (being a papist) the tract of land now called Moneen and in which Killcasheen is situated, employed himself, his workmen, his horses and sledges in carrying the victims of the plague from all parts of the neighbouring district and burying them here, so that it has continued ever since to be a burial place, although not a popular one’.

So with Curry we have a tangible connection with the seventeenth century.

John O’Donovan looked forward with relish to working in Clare. Crossing the Shannon had always a symbolic significance and O’Donovan was much happier in Clare than in his native Kilkenny which had too much of ‘the English Pale’ for his liking. He noted that the history and topography of Clare were better preserved because its ‘ancient proprietors were never driven out, having always found shelter under the illustrious representatives of Brian Boru. Here, he stated ‘the ancient traditions are very vivid’. Fieldwork in Clare, however, in the cold months of October and November was a tough business. Back in Dublin in December 1839, O’Donovan worked unremittingly on the ‘writing of Clare’. ‘We are working’ he wrote ‘fifteen hours every day without cessation’. Indeed the productivity of both O‘Curry and O’Donovan is remarkable considering the practical problems they encountered. Writing from Sixmilebridge, 29 Nov. 1839, O’Donovan was not as enthusiastic as in early Autumn. ‘What do you think’, he asked ‘of wet turf, sleeping in bogs, damp beds, potatoes, little turnips, half baked bread, adulterated tea, ‘no meat’, broken pains (of glass) and paying 2/6 per diem for an office to work in’. The Kilkennyman could be contrary but his writing has shafts of wit and examples of playful punning as when Father Mathew’s temperance rally drove him from Limerick on 4 December 1839 he described himself ‘as anti-Mathusian as I am enthusiastically anti-Malthusian.’

The Clare Letters reproduced here provide vivid testimony to the world of the imagination. Every topographical prominence or strange signature on the landscape was explained with reference to either holy men, fairies, the Firbolg or Tuatha de Danann. People measured the relative athletic prowess of Cuchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhail; the Hag of Blackhead, Bronach of the Burren and the Banshee queen Aoibheal roamed the land. This magical world is vividly captured in the bawdy, racy language of Brian Merriman’s Chuirt an Meanoiche written by the Clare poet in 1780. O’Donovan who described the poem as a ‘very sarcastic and manly production’ though ‘somewhat indecent in expression’ reproduces Curry’s version with a translation in his notes on Feakle parish.

The Letters because they were primarily about antiquities have little to say concerning economic and social life; there are only fleeting references to the great disparities between rich and poor in crowded, pre-famine County Clare. People sought shelter in every nook and cranny. Writing of the ‘fine Cromleac in the townland of Cuteen or Commony’ in the parish of Kilnaboy, Curry noted that ‘it is used as a bed chamber to a hut attached inhabited by a poor man of the name of Michael Conneen’.

This collection breathes life into the landscape and serves as a measure of both loss and survival. It is appropriate as we reach the end of the century and millennium that we remember the heroic rescue work accomplished by O’Curry and O’Donovan some one hundred and fifty eight years ago. Perhaps someone might discover ‘a cave in a rock called Cearta Loinn Mhic Liomhtha, the Forge of Lon, Son of Liomtha and within it the cinders and dust of the forge.’ Where is it? Well it’s in a field called Garraidh na Ceartan on the east side of Slieve na Glaise in the parish of Kilnaboy.

Dr. William Nolan.
Department of Geography, U.C.D. 1997